Ukrainian Holodomor and the War in Ukraine

– in Westminster Hall at 4:29 pm on 7 March 2023.

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Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire 4:29, 7 March 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Ukrainian Holodomor and the war in Ukraine.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I know that this is an issue that you will be interested in, as you chaired the all-party parliamentary group on Ukraine for a while.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Just for the record, I no longer chair the APPG on Ukraine. I am completely neutral.

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire

This debate takes place at a terrible and opportune moment. Ninety years ago, in the spring of 1933, millions of Ukrainians were starved to death as part of a campaign of terror and forced hunger that was implemented by the Soviet leadership in Moscow. Last month I joined Derby’s Ukrainian community to commemorate those who lost their lives, and two weeks ago we marked the first anniversary of Russia’s latest invasion of Ukrainian territory—this time with military force, but once again with the aim of exterminating the nation of Ukraine. Today I will set out the case for the UK Government and Parliament to recognise the Holodomor as a genocide, and I will highlight some of the similarities with what is happening today, and the dangers of failing to recognise war crimes, crimes against humanity and even genocide.

I was part of the APPG on Ukraine delegation that recently visited Kyiv, and I see in the Chamber some of my colleagues who joined me. While we were there, the links between Soviet politics in the 1930s and the Russian aggression today were startlingly evident. We saw proof of the Russian attacks on Ukrainian nationhood and identity that are taking place today, and also visited the memorial to the millions of Ukrainians who were callously killed by Stalin in 1932 and 1933.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I visited the Holodomor memorial with the hon. Lady, who is leading the debate brilliantly, and I have no doubt that the Holodomor was a genocide. A number of genocides are unrecognised by the UK Government. The Holodomor is a prime example, but there is also Armenia, West Papua and the Rohingya. Should there not be a better and quicker process for the British Government to recognise genocides, particularly historical genocides?

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because I will come on to what our Government have said in the past. It is important, because the people who were subjected to the genocide, and many of the people who were there and survived, are no longer alive, so it is incredibly difficult to go to court and prove anything from that time.

In June 2013, just after the 80th anniversary of the Holodomor, I first led a debate in this House calling for the UK Government to recognise the Holodomor as a genocide. I tried again in November 2017, but we have just marked the 90th anniversary this year and there is still no official recognition by the Government. I hope that today will prove third time lucky, and that there will be no need for a similar debate on the same subject in 10 years’ time, when it will be 100 years since the Holodomor took place.

“Holodomor” is a Ukrainian word that means “to inflict death by hunger”. However, the term now refers to the entire Stalinist campaign to eliminate the Ukrainian nation, which culminated in the forced famine of 1932 and 1933, killing millions of Ukrainians. The exact number is not known, because the Soviet Union refused to allow reporting of the famine, but it is estimated that 7 million, and maybe as many as 10 million, died in Ukraine, with many more deaths in neighbouring Soviet states. The Holodomor was a policy designed to eliminate the Ukrainian rural farmer population, who were the embodiment and spirit of Ukrainian culture and nationhood.

To understand the Holodomor, it is important to keep in mind the context of that period. In 1922, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was proclaimed, Soviet Ukraine was part of it, after being invaded by the Bolsheviks following the Russian revolution. Although Soviet Ukraine theoretically retained some domestic control, in reality all decisions were made by the Soviet leadership in Moscow. The Communist party of Ukraine’s membership was less than 20% Ukrainian, so the Bolsheviks had very little support. Initially, from 1923, the Communist party took steps to appease the local population, including encouraging the Ukrainian language and culture and encouraging Ukrainians to join the party. However, by the end of the 1920s, Stalin had taken over as party leader and imposed a new revolution from above, which included banning the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, arresting the clergy, and arresting, deporting and executing Ukrainian nationalists and the cultural elite. Intellectuals, writers and artists committed suicide rather than be deported to Russia.

At the same time, the Stalinist Government was embarking on rapid industrialisation, and the cost fell most heavily on the Ukrainian rural classes. Wholesale agricultural collectivisation took place from 1929. Wealthy peasants, known as kulaks, had their property taken away and faced further sanction. By the mid-1930s, 100,000 such families had been deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan. In response to resistance in 1932 and 1933, Stalin’s Government imposed impossibly high grain requisition quotas, which had to be satisfied before any grain could be kept by the local population. In 1932, not a single Ukrainian village met the quota threshold assigned to it. Anyone who kept grain destined for Russia was executed by firing squad. Special police roamed the countryside searching homes and summarily executing those who were found to have stored food. Moscow refused to provide any relief. In fact, at that exact time, Moscow was exporting more than a million tonnes of grain to the west. Callously and cruelly, Stalin shut Ukraine’s eastern border, preventing Ukrainians from fleeing to Russia.

These conditions led to the most horrific situation for the people of Ukraine. Men, women and children starved to death in their villages. This was not a famine; there was enough grain, even with a below average harvest in Ukraine, to comfortably feed the entire population. The grain was exported to Russia, and Ukrainians were prevented from escaping. Again, this was not a naturally occurring famine. This was murder by starvation.

At the height of the famine, 25,000 people died every day of starvation, including children too small to feed themselves, who were reliant on their parents. Some people tried to commit suicide to escape the horror of starving to death. Those who refused to steal or leave died of hunger. Those who tried to steal were shot. Those who tried to leave were returned to their villages to face the same impossible choice. Villages turned to cannibalism to survive. The dead were unburied and the sick untended. These are difficult details to hear, but it is crucial that we appreciate the scale of the Holodomor. There is a large Ukrainian community in Derbyshire. In my meetings with them over the last decade, they have asked me to persist with my efforts to seek recognition of the Holodomor as a genocide.

Raphael Lemkin was an academic and lawyer who coined the term genocide. Lemkin was born in Poland and studied at the University of Lviv in modern-day Ukraine. He defined genocide—a new word coined to denote an old practice. Genocide literally means the killing of a race. Lemkin was influential in the drafting of the genocide convention, an international treaty that criminalises genocide and has been unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Article II of the convention defines genocide as

“acts committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.

That specifically includes killing members of the group and imposing living conditions intended to destroy the group. The Holodomor was a genocide.

On the last two occasions that I have brought this debate forward, the relevant Minister has informed the House that His Majesty’s Government will recognise an event as a genocide only once it has been recognised as such by a court. I am no lawyer, but I think it is very clear from the definition that I have set out and the history that I provided that Stalin did set out to destroy, in whole or in part, a national group—the Ukrainians. He did so by killing some, and imposing living conditions —starvation—intended to destroy the group. The fact that millions died from starvation due to Stalin’s policy when Ukraine was not in the grasp of a famine is indicative of that.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Paymaster General

I am grateful to the hon. Member for calling for this debate. I visited the Holodomor memorial with other MPs last year. As Mrs Latham is outlining, the denial and downplaying of the Holodomor is very damaging, and is having real-world impacts right now in modern-day Ukraine. Twenty-three countries have decided to go ahead and declare the Holodomor a genocide. They include Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland and even the European Parliament. Does the hon. Member agree that this is an important time to stop denying this, and to declare the Holodomor a genocide?

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire

Yes. I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. That is absolutely why this debate is so important—because we cannot deny the genocide any longer. It has to be recognised by this Government, because we will be—we are—an outlier.

Stalin set out to destroy the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians were not in the grasp of famine. He deported the cultural elite and suppressed Ukrainian culture, and there was the breaking of the rural communities. Stalin’s closure of the borders and refusal to send aid, despite selling millions of tonnes of grain to the west, are yet further proof. His desire to end Ukrainian identity is absolutely clear, and Soviet actions in the aftermath of the Holodomor—decimated villages were resettled with ethnically Russian communities—are conclusive.

Raphael Lemkin put the matter very clearly in a speech at the 20th commemoration of the Holodomor in New York City in 1953. He described the Holodomor as

“perhaps the classic example of Soviet genocide, its longest and broadest experiment in Russification—the destruction of the Ukrainian nation.”

He recognised that there were no attempts at “complete annihilation”, as had taken place in the holocaust. However, his most powerful quote is as follows:

“And yet, if the Soviet program succeeds completely, if the intelligentsia, the priests and the peasants can be eliminated, Ukraine will be as dead as if every Ukrainian were killed, for it will have lost that part of it which has kept and developed its culture, its beliefs, its common ideas, which have guided it and given it a soul, which, in short, made it a nation rather than a mass of people.”

The Lemkin quote sets out very clearly why the Holodomor amounts to a genocide. It also leads me on perfectly to another reason why today’s debate is so important. Those words, delivered by him 70 years ago, resonate with us today. Ukraine is once again threatened by Russian expansionism. Thankfully, Stalin failed, and the culture, beliefs and common ideas, the very soul of Ukraine, survived. On countless occasions in the last year, we have paid tribute in this House to the spirit and soul of the Ukrainian people in their battle against Putin.

The UK Government should always recognise crimes against humanity, including genocide, wherever they happen. In my last debate on this subject, it was suggested to me that official international recognition is less important than the memory of these events in defeating genocide. I do not agree. In my experience of serving on the Select Committee on International Development, I have visited both Rwanda and Bosnia, and have seen the peace processes that followed the Rwanda genocide and the Srebrenica massacre. Those have both been recognised as genocides by the UK Government, and that matters to the people. In any case, the Holodomor is now 90 years ago. Although my local Ukrainian community is brilliant at arranging annual commemorations and campaigning on this issue, the Holodomor is now almost out of human living memory. International recognition is absolutely crucial for local communities, and it is no surprise that the Ukrainian Government have welcomed a host of countries’ recognising the Holodomor as a genocide.

Recognition matters to the other side, too. In October 2022, when Russian forces took Mariupol, they tore down the Holodomor memorial, saying that it represented disinformation at the state level. It is clearly important to both the victims and the perpetrators when such an event is formally recognised.

That brings me on to my second point about recognition. I said that the Government should always recognise genocide when it occurs, and that is true, but in this case there is an even more obvious reason to do so. Ukraine is threatened again, and its strongest allies around the world are standing up and supporting it. That is why the delegation went a couple of weeks ago to stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian nation and say, “We support you.”

As Fleur Anderson said, Canada, Ireland, Australia and many other countries have long recognised the Holodomor as a genocide. In May 2022, the US Congress passed a resolution recognising the Holodomor as a genocide and condemning Soviet policies that prevented the delivery of humanitarian aid and people from escaping. There are clear overtones of what is happening in current times. Germany, Romania and Moldova recognised the Holodomor as recently as November 2022, so we are fast becoming an international outlier by refusing to acknowledge the suffering of the Ukrainian people at the hands of the Soviets in the 1930s, while at the same time supporting them in their fight today.

In the war on Ukraine, as I heard during my visit, Russians have been accused of crimes against humanity. We saw evidence of that. We saw the piled-up, burned-out, shot-at cars of people who were trying to escape the Russians. Civilians were slaughtered as part of what Russia is doing to Ukraine. We must give confidence to the Ukrainian Government and the international legal order that the UK Government and Parliament will not stand for abuses of human rights and war crimes. We can do that by recognising where genocide took place. Indeed, that may be important in the future. I raised this matter with the Foreign Secretary in the House in February, and he noted that Putin has himself said

“that his intention is to eradicate the whole concept of Ukraine.”—[Official Report, 20 February 2023; Vol. 728, c. 60.]

If that is not genocide, I do not know what is.

A final reason why it is important officially to recognise the Holodomor as a genocide is because of our Ukrainian communities in the UK. Since February 2022, thanks to the generosity of the British people, those communities have increased exponentially in size. I know from my experience in Derbyshire that it would mean a huge amount to Ukrainians in the UK if we were able to recognise the Holodomor as a genocide. I met a family on Friday who said, “Please, get the Government to recognise it. It would mean so much to the people of Ukraine.”

I therefore have two asks of the Minister. First and most importantly, will he please reconsider the official Government position that a genocide will be recognised only after a court has adjudicated on it, given the evidence that I set out, and the unique circumstances? In the light of the war in Ukraine, we need to show our support for our allies; we need to show Putin that attempts to eradicate the Ukrainian people will not be tolerated. If the US, Germany, Canada, Australia and Ukraine can recognise the genocide, we can and should, too, particularly if it can have an impact on the war.

Secondly, if His Majesty’s Government are unable to break their policy and recognise the Holodomor—I hope I am wrong about that—would the Minister be willing to arrange a debate on the issue, and a meaningful vote on it on the Floor of the House, so that the UK Parliament can at least can show its support for Ukraine, and designate the Holodomor a genocide?

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to ask for a parliamentary debate, which would show that there is a lot of sympathy for officially designating the Holodomor a genocide. She may be aware that the European Parliament voted to do so by 507 votes; only 12 voted against. That sent a powerful signal to Ukraine that the European Parliament was behind it.

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire

It is a powerful signal to send and we should not be found lacking; we should send that powerful signal. Even Derby City Council has recognised that the Holodomor is a genocide. We have a plaque in Derby city centre that was supported by the whole council, and all the Ukrainians living in the area came to celebrate when we unveiled it. If all these other people can do it, I do not understand why the Government cannot.

The Holodomor was an atrocious, calculated murder of millions of Ukrainians designed to destroy the Ukrainian nation. Today, Putin is using a military invasion, which has exactly the same objective. In Kyiv, we went to the Holodomor Museum, and interestingly, all the exhibits have been taken away to protect them, but there are photographs of them because people are so concerned about Putin coming forward and creating yet another genocide. Now is the time to acknowledge the Holodomor as a genocide: to provide a warning to Putin that crimes against humanity will not be tolerated in Ukraine and that the UK stands squarely behind Ukraine in its defence of its sovereignty and its people’s rights.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay 4:51, 7 March 2023

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Latham on securing this debate; she was my colleague on the delegation that went out to Kyiv two weeks ago. It is also a pleasure to see Alex Sobel, with whom I shared the van journey from London to Lviv as part of that convoy.

It is right that we reflect on the Holodomor and its role in history. It was a dark time in Ukraine’s history, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire rightly pointed out. Millions of people starved to death, not because there was a natural disaster or some blight that swept through the land, but because of a calculated policy decision. It was part of a general attempt to destroy the Ukrainian people and their identity and to make them subservient to the state based in Moscow, at the time led by Joseph Stalin. It is that core that resonates so firmly in today’s situation.

History is a battleground in Ukraine. It is clear from President Putin’s statements that he wants people to believe that Ukraine is just a political construct of the 1990s and that there is no history and identity, and not something that separates people from being part of Russia. It is part of his clear view that the Soviet Union should be back together, with him, of course, as its dictator. This is not a man who wants to create any form of democracy or respect for rights in the nations and lands that he wishes and seeks to control.

That is why this debate is so timely. It is not just a historical exercise. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, the events are still within living memory. It is about fighting back today—when it is highly relevant—against the narrative that the lands of Ukraine are an extension of Russia, which they most certainly are not. Ukrainians are a historic people with their own language, culture and identity, which they literally fight every day to defend.

It was good to be out in Ukraine and to see the commitment there to standing firm, as well as the gratitude for the support. The reality is that Ukraine would not survive and be fighting today were it not for us and other nations and democracies giving them, and continuing to give them, the tools to do that job. We must not allow the fact that a year has passed to be a reason to slacken off our support. It is vital that that continues, especially as we see the Russian attacks continue, in particular around Bakhmut.

There are echoes of history and what Stalin did in some of the footage that has come out this week. We should be under no illusion: the Russian Federation is no respecter of international law on either aggression or human rights—or, for that matter, the most basic rules of warfare when it comes to those taken as prisoners of war. It is clear that it has very little respect for any international norms. Again, that is why it is so vital that, as a nation that believes in and respects the international rules-based order, we are there supporting Ukraine and making that contribution.

It is apt that we are having this debate, and that we talk about recognising the Holodomor for what it was. It was a calculated attempt to wipe out a nation and turn its lands to a different perspective. It was what we would call, in more modern terminology, ethnic cleansing in the effort by Joseph Stalin to dominate and assimilate a whole area within the empire that he had formed at that time. Given the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, it is timely now to respect this piece of history and to make it clear what it was. We also make clear our absolute condemnation of what happened then and our resolve to ensure that the Ukrainian nation today survives and flourishes.

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Conservative, South Cambridgeshire 4:56, 7 March 2023

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Latham on securing this important debate and my hon. Friend Kevin Foster on his powerful speech. I, too, was on the delegation to Kyiv last week and went to the Holodomor memorial with hon. Members, including Alex Sobel, who intervened earlier.

There is no doubt, and complete consensus among historians, that the Holodomor famine happened. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire pointed out, the scale of it is under dispute, but it was clearly a famine, clearly man-made and clearly a deliberate act by Stalin. It was not just starvation, but an attempt, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay said, to wipe out the Ukrainian nation. It was an attempt to Russify the whole area. Russia deliberately targeted Ukrainian culture—trying to wipe it out—and the Ukrainian elites. By all historical definitions of genocide, it was clearly a genocide. It was an attempt to ethnically cleanse Ukraine.

That is so important because if we do not confront and accept the tragedies of history, we are doomed to repeat them. Throughout its history, Ukraine has been in a fight for its survival against Russia. There is a pattern of behaviour where Russia has tried to simply wipe out Ukraine as a nation. It tried to do it 90 years ago with the Holodomor massacre, and it is clearly trying to do the same now. Unless we understand and appreciate the historical context, we do not realise the significance of what is happening now.

When we were in Kyiv, we discussed the Russia abductions of Ukrainian children with various human rights groups. The Russians are stealing and abducting Ukrainian children, taking them into Russia and Russifying them—forcing them to sing Russian songs, speak Russian and everything else. There could be no clearer example of attempted ethnic cleansing. It is on a small scale at the moment, but it is absolutely horrifying. Unless we realise that this is about Ukraine’s cultural survival and its survival as a nation, what Russia is doing with Ukrainian children simply does not make sense.

I fully support giving greater recognition to the Holodomor as a genocide. As we have heard, many other countries, including many of our closest allies, have done so. It has been recognised as a genocide by the United States Senate, Germany and many EU countries, including Ireland, Poland and Romania, the EU Parliament, Australia, Canada and Brazil. The Ukrainian people clearly want us to do this—there is no doubt. We discussed it with various Ukrainian leaders, and it would mean a huge amount to them politically. They are very grateful that we give Ukraine all this military support, and they would not have the success that they are having on the battlefield without it, but it would mean so much to them—more in terms of moral support—if we recognised the Holodomor as a massacre. The fight that they are having is really a continuation of a fight that has been going on for a century.

I urge the Government to think about what they can do to consider the Holodomor as a genocide. I appreciate that the Government have constraints: we cannot recognise everything as a genocide that people want recognised as a genocide, and the formal position is that it must be recognised in court. Perhaps there are other ways. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire said, we could have a meaningful vote in Parliament about it, and I would certainly support that.

I will end with this observation. I found visiting the Holodomor memorial incredibly moving, and I am talking not just about the horrific photos about the famine and the stories of the extraordinary suffering, but about the fact that we did so in a situation where all the exhibits had to be replaced by photographs, because the Ukrainians were really worried that the Russians would succeed in doing this again. That is obviously completely unacceptable, and it shows us the reality that this is not some distant historical event from 90 years ago; the Ukrainians are fighting a similar sort of battle now. I urge the Government to do what they can to give as much support as possible to Ukraine by recognising the Holodomor as a genocide.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

We move on to the Front Benchers.

Photo of Stewart McDonald Stewart McDonald Scottish National Party, Glasgow South 5:01, 7 March 2023

It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Pritchard. Like others, I begin by sincerely commending Mrs Latham not just for her efforts to secure this debate, but for her long-standing interest in and advocacy for the Ukrainian nation and the Ukrainian people, for which she was recognised by President Zelensky. I believe that she and I were honoured on the same day back in 2019, as she is a fellow recipient of Ukraine’s order of merit, and like me, I am sure she holds that dear.

Millions of people were killed in one of Europe’s most heinous crimes, which happened in Ukraine in the 1930s. To my amazement, very few people know all that much about it. Until maybe six or seven years ago, I would have included myself among such people. However, because of such things as the work of the Holodomor Museum in Kyiv and the work of Ukrainian diasporas all around the world, including in this country, more and more people are understanding the true horrors of what took place.

Like other Members who have spoken, I have visited the museum in Kyiv a number of times. On my last visit there in September last year, I was with a friend of mine, who I am sure is known to many in this Chamber—Alyona Shkrum, a member of the Verkhovna Rada. She pointed out to me in the books and registers the members of her family—she can trace them back a long time—who are listed, and that really brings it home. When people go to that small museum, they see a small, solemn and sacred space, which—unfortunately but understandably, as other Members have pointed out—has had to be emptied somewhat just in case the Russians succeeded in taking Kyiv. Thankfully, that never happened.

I will outline two pieces of work that have brought the issue of the Holodomor to the masses. One is a 2019 film, “Mr Jones”, which I am sure the Labour Front Bencher, Stephen Doughty, will come back to, as a proud Welshman. As well as watching that film, which is an excellent modern depiction of what truly went on, we should not forget the heroic work of Gareth Jones in exposing, or trying to expose, what was really happening at the time, much to the annoyance of many, including the Government here.

I will also mention the excellent, highly detailed and grim book written by the inimitable Anne Applebaum, “Red Famine”. Anyone who reads the detail of that book will learn more about the cruelty of what really went on during the Holodomor. As has been mentioned, there were forced deportations, killings by firing squads and death forced upon people through starvation. Trying to stay alive was indeed a death sentence for millions.

As others have said, we have seen echoes of that in the modern conflict, not least by the Russians trying to use grain as a weapon of war—not just against people in Ukraine, but against people in some of the poorest parts of the world. Just as the Holodomor was indeed a genocide that should be recognised by the Government, we are seeing those patterns come back again today, because the attempt to suppress and even deny Ukrainian statehood, culture and institutions, as well as the country’s language, history, art and people, is central to the prosecution of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Like others, although I want to see the genocide recognised by the Government, I fully appreciate the constraints within which the Minister has to operate, but I am left wondering what else we can do as a Parliament, and what else we can do in our communities, to draw attention to one of Europe’s darkest crimes. I am bound to mention that I was pleased a few years ago, under the former Ukrainian ambassador to the UK, to see the unveiling of a new Holodomor memorial in Edinburgh.

I will end with a few words from Ukraine’s national poet and patriot, Taras Shevchenko. Although he died many years before the Holodomor came into existence, his work and poetry provides Ukrainians—indeed, all Europeans—with an understanding of the freedom that Ukrainians are currently dying for. In his poem “The Days Go By”, he said:

“It’s terrible to lie in chains,

To rot in dungeon deep,

But it’s still worse, when you are free

To sleep, and sleep, and sleep.”

I am proud of the support that this country’s Government have given to Ukraine. I am pleased that there is such phenomenal cross-party support for Ukraine—it is perhaps the only issue that enjoys such strong cross-party support—and we are not asleep. Ukraine is still fighting for its freedom, and essential to that modern freedom is recognising what happened to it under the Stalin regime, so I would like to see the Government recognise the Holodomor as a genocide. Short of that, this Parliament should act to do so, and we should ensure that the horrors of those years are known by more people not just in this country, but elsewhere across Europe, so that it truly never happens again.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development) 5:07, 7 March 2023

It is a particular pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Pritchard, and I thank Mrs Latham for bringing this issue to the House. I thank all colleagues who have participated for their insightful, powerful and considered remarks on this truly appalling moment in Ukraine’s history, and for linking it to the terrible events that we see today. I hope that the Minister can respond to the sincere questions that have been raised by all Members present.

I am not allowed to refer to the Gallery, but we have been joined in Parliament today by Lesia Zaburanna, who is a Member of the Rada. She has been speaking to many of us—

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Order. Under a recent ruling, you can refer to somebody in the Gallery, and I am sure the hon. Member would not wish to miss that opportunity.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

I will not miss that opportunity. I am delighted that Ms Zaburanna joins us in the Gallery for this debate. She is a Member of Parliament for Kyiv and has been here speaking to Members across the House. I am sure that today’s proceedings and the meetings that we have had with colleagues have shown her that the UK’s resolve and commitment to Ukraine has never been stronger; indeed, it exists on a cross-party basis across the House.

As we passed a tragic milestone last month, we must all continue to reflect on the immense suffering that Ukraine has endured, as well as the remarkable courage and resilience of its people and the progress that they have made in driving Russia back. It is clearer than ever that Putin must be defeated in Ukraine, and we must continue to stand full square behind Ukraine, to strengthen Ukraine’s hand on the battlefield, to support relief and reconstruction, to deliver justice, to maintain western unity, to isolate Putin and to undermine Russia’s barbaric war effort.

We were all incredibly moved by President Zelensky’s speech to us in Westminster Hall just a few weeks ago. As I say regularly in these debates, the Government will continue to have Labour’s full support in confronting the threat that Russia poses to the whole of Europe and the whole world, and in holding it to account for the terrible things it has done in Ukraine.

This debate has brought home the fact that today’s illegal, unconscionable war comes after a history of Ukraine being subjected to immense brutality, especially in the terrible events of the Holodomor, one of the most atrocious instances of man-made famine in European history, which culminated in the deaths of millions of people. I have also visited the museum and memorial in Kyiv just a few months ago—many Members have referred to it. It is incredibly moving. Everybody should see it to recognise the reality of what happened to the Ukrainian people.

Stalin’s role in catalysing enforced, man-made, widespread starvation in 1932 and 1933 understandably, and rightly, lives on in the Ukrainian national psyche. The barbarism we saw 90 years ago carries as much salience today as it ever has, particularly given what we have seen since.

The personal stories are the most harrowing. A congressional commission that took evidence in the late 1980s heard from an individual who grew up in the village of Stavyshche, who spoke of watching people dig into empty gardens with bare hands, in a desperate bid to find anything to eat; of witnessing people bloated from extreme malnutrition collapse on the road one by one; and, of course, of the mass graves. It is a tragedy that we again see mass graves in Ukraine. We have witnessed and heard the terrible stories of atrocities being committed.

As with the war today, there was a clear perpetrator behind the famine. Stalin’s motivation to transform and mould the Ukrainian nation in his own image, at any cost, is mirrored in Putin’s warped, imperialist world view today, the consequences of which continue to devastate the lives of Ukrainians. Putin’s misguided and perverse attempts to wipe Ukrainian identity are the most recent manifestation of Russia’s penchant for interference, subjugation, war and atrocities.

This debate carries particular weight for me as a Welsh MP. Stewart Malcolm McDonald mentioned Gareth Jones. Much of what we know about the Holodomor is because of the bravery of that one Welshman. He was born a few miles away from my constituency, in Barry in the Vale of Glamorgan, in 1905. After witnessing the horrible consequences of Stalin’s tyranny first hand, he detailed those consequences. He wrote:

“I walked along through villages and 12 collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, “There is no bread. We are dying.”…In the train a Communist denied to me that there was a famine. I flung a crust of bread which I had been eating from my own supply into a spittoon. A peasant fellow-passenger fished it out and ravenously ate it. I threw an orange peel into the same spittoon and the peasant again grabbed and devoured it. The Communist subsided.”

Jones defied Soviet attempts to censor him and reported the truth of the Holodomor to millions. Yet the Kremlin of course continued to deny the existence of the famine. The mendacious campaign that tried to silence Gareth could not.

The parallels with today are striking. Journalists, correspondents and reporters from many countries, not least Ukraine itself, are putting themselves in danger to expose the true extent of Russia’s barbarism. They are absolutely integral to thwarting Putin’s concerted information war and to bringing justice in terms of investigating war crimes and atrocities.

I have a few questions for the Minister. Today in Parliament, we have been talking about the crime of aggression and war crimes. I understand that the Government have now opted to join a working group on holding Putin to account for the crime of aggression. Could the Minister say a little more on the progress of that group?

We have seen concerted attempts by Russia to lie about food supplies to the rest of the world. In a dreadful parallel to the way it used food as a weapon of war in the Holodomor, it is now doing so with the rest of the world. Despite the grain deal, it continues to frustrate. What can the Minister say about what we are doing to tell the world the truth about Russia’s continued interference with world food supplies from Ukraine, including on the mining of Ukrainian agricultural land?

Finally, what can the Minister say about the crucial attempts that are going to be needed to rebuild Ukraine, its agricultural capacity, its ability to thrive, and its economy in the future? What are we doing to seize assets, not just freeze them? What steps are the Government further taking, given the cross-party consensus on the issue and the need to generate more resources for reconstruction?

Historically and today, the price that Ukrainians have had to pay for their freedom is immense. The events of 90 years ago are an anguishing reminder of the consequences when tyranny runs without constraint and imperialism without restriction. We must stand united in this House against it.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 5:14, 7 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend Mrs Latham and to all colleagues for their contributions; my hon. Friend’s contribution was moving and thoughtful. I also appreciated the contribution from my hon. Friend Kevin Foster; he spoke of the echoes of history, which was particularly relevant. My hon. Friend Anthony Browne also spoke of his experiences on the delegation. I am very grateful to them for bringing their collective experience to the attention of colleagues today.

I was also grateful to Stewart Malcolm McDonald for his contribution. He referred to the work of Gareth Jones—I am sure many people will be pleased to know that they can watch that film, which will no doubt be of interest—and the terrific scholarship of Anne Applebaum. I was touched that he quoted the national poet, which I thought was particularly apposite. As ever, I was very grateful to Stephen Doughty for his continued support for our collective resolve to support our Ukrainian friends in their efforts to liberate their territory and maintain their sovereignty. I join him in warmly welcoming our colleague from Ukraine—it is very good to see her in the Gallery, and I hope she has found this debate of interest.

Turning to the specific questions asked by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, which I welcome, I can confirm that we are indeed in the G7’s core group of nations looking at what additional mechanism might be required to work alongside the International Criminal Court when it comes to countering crimes in Ukraine. That work is in progress, but we will keep the House updated and informed; it is something we are leaning into, because we need to acknowledge that not everything will be able to be covered off by the ICC. When it comes to the appalling disinformation spread by Putin’s regime, particularly with regard to the global south, we are doing a lot of work to counter that disinformation and promote the Black sea grain initiative, ensuring that there is an ongoing flow and that people know that the vast majority of it is ending up in the global south—it is not just for western European nations.

Quite rightly, the hon. Gentleman talked about our collective efforts to help Ukraine rebuild itself. As he will know, we are very pleased to be hosting the next reconstruction conference in London in June, at the invitation of our Ukrainian friends and alongside them. That is the successor to the Lugano conference held by the Swiss last year, and it will be a very important moment to map out how private capital, particularly, will be able to find itself in Ukraine, helping the reconstruction effort. The hon. Gentleman asked a pertinent question about seizing frozen assets. That is something that we continue to look at; clearly, there are very significant frozen assets in the UK—some £19 billion, £2 billion of which are Russian state assets. We continue to look at that issue, because we know it is of urgent pertinence and relevance to the justified efforts of the Ukrainians to rebuild their society.

Turning to the subject of the Holodomor, we have heard today in moving terms how 90 years ago, millions of men, women and children lost their lives in that forced, deliberate famine, victims of Stalin’s brutal regime. Of course, it is an echo from history today, because Ukrainians are again suffering from terror fomented in Moscow at the hands of Putin’s brutal regime, so I pay tribute to those who keep alive the memory of the Holodomor and its victims—we must never forget them. Of course, the Prime Minister visited Kyiv in November and lit a candle at the memorial for those victims. I was pleased that colleagues recounted their own experience of doing a similar thing, because today we stand firm in our support of the Ukrainians amid growing evidence of appalling atrocities committed during this outrageous and illegal war. As I have indicated, we are actively supporting Ukraine to investigate and prosecute those responsible, as well as the investigation by the ICC. We will continue to exert institutional effort and resource, empowering Ukrainians to ensure that there is a very clear line and operational strand of accountability.

Turning directly to the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire, of course, I entirely understand why colleagues have today called for the Government to recognise the Holodomor as a genocide. In response to her first question, I say gently that it is a long-standing policy of the Government that any judgment on whether genocide has occurred is a matter for a competent court, rather than Governments or non-judicial bodies. Our long-standing approach provides a clear, impartial and independent measure for the determination of whether genocide has occurred. Of course, I know that is not what she wants to hear, but let me be clear that in no way does that detract from our recognition of the Holodomor as an appalling tragedy, its importance in the history of Ukraine and Europe, and the contemporary pertinence. My hon. Friend asked whether there might be a debate on the Floor of the House and a meaningful vote. That is a matter for the Leader of the House, but I know my hon. Friend will not be backwards in coming forward to seek out that opportunity. I thank her sincerely for raising these issues in this forum, not least because it affords us an opportunity to reflect on recent events.

We should remember that, since 2014, thousands have been killed by Putin’s forces. Since the full-scale invasion, over 50% of Ukraine’s pre-war population—21 million—have needed humanitarian assistance either inside or outside Ukraine. We should remember the scale of the impact and, of course, it draws parallels with the 1930s. Russian forces have attacked Ukrainian hospitals, schools and energy supplies, leaving cities in ruins. In areas of Ukraine liberated from Russian forces, the Russians leave behind mass graves, as well as evidence of rape and torture on an unimaginable scale.

Ultimately, one man is responsible for the devastation left in the wake of Russia’s forces. Putin’s invasion was unprovoked and illegal. He has started a war he cannot win. It is our judgment that his army is on the defensive. Ukraine’s heroic armed forces have recaptured thousands of square miles. We are proud to continue to work with our allies to ensure that Ukraine gets the support it needs to win this war, secure a lasting peaceand bring to justice those responsible for war crimes and atrocities in accordance with international law.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

Anthony Browne raised an important point about the terrible reports we have all heard of the forced deportation of children and the separation of families in an attempt to Russify them to deny them their Ukrainian heritage. Again, there are all sorts of awful parallels with the impact on children during the Holodomor. Will the Minister say a little about our current assessment and what we are doing to bring those responsible to account?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I will, gladly. We are working with the Ukrainians to invest energy and resource to build capacity for them to record these crimes, so that there is a trail of accountability; so Karim Khan and the International Criminal Court can hold these people to account. That is not least for its deterrent effect, so I welcome the hon. Member’s question.

I will not recount at length the suite of military, humanitarian and economic support we are giving, but it totals nearly £4 billion. We continue to be the largest supplier of military aid to Ukraine after the United States. Importantly, we will keep this going. We expect to spend £2.4 billion on military support for Ukraine this financial year and have committed to £2.3 billion or more of support next financial year. That is important to note because this will be a matter of resolve, and we must send a clear signal that our resolve is not failing. In terms of economic and humanitarian support, we are proud that we are providing more than £1.6 billion in non-military assistance. Clearly, Putin is now completely diplomatically isolated. Sanctions are beginning to bite. We have co-ordinated sanctions with our international allies to impose a huge cost, freezing a combined £275 billion of Russian assets. So our response is having effect.

When it comes to war crimes, there are some important next steps. We are supporting the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine to help it investigate, as I have referred to, and set itself up to prosecute alleged war crimes. Colleagues should know that the Justice Secretary will host a major international meeting later this month to support war crime investigations by the ICC. So that important strand of work will progress. I have already mentioned our support and hosting of the recovery conference, which is hugely important.

To conclude, we have heard a moving evocation of the fact that the Holodomor and its modern parallel are two of the darkest chapters in Ukraine’s history. Our stance is that any determination on genocide must be made by the courts. That does not distract from our recognition of the Holodomor as the most appalling tragedy—one that resonates today in the face of renewed Russian aggression. The UK is supporting our heroic Ukrainian friends to fight back, and it is our honour to do so. That includes supporting Ukraine’s judicial system and the ICC to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes.

When President Zelensky addressed both Houses, a short distance from where we are today, he said “Freedom will win.” We know that that desire, and the desire for justice to prevail, unites the entire House.

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire 5:25, 7 March 2023

I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in this debate, especially those who came a couple of weeks ago to see Ukraine. I am incredibly disappointed, yet again, by the Minister. He said that this is what we always do; we do not recognise genocide retrospectively. We could do; we could change our view. The Foreign Office could change its view as to how it recognises a genocide. It is not just an unfortunate event; it is millions of people who were slaughtered by famine. They were not slaughtered with a gun or a knife; they were slaughtered by starvation to death. Surely, in this day and age, this Government should be able to change what we have always done before, and recognise the Holodomor as a genocide.

The Holodomor was the most horrific thing. It is so important to Ukrainians in this country and around the world for us to recognise it. I am absolutely devastated that the Minister has said no more than we have heard before. I feel completely let down, as I am sure other Ukrainian descendants feel, when this Government still say, “Oh, it was unfortunate. Yes, it is really sad, but it’s not a genocide, because we don’t recognise those sorts of things.” It is ridiculous. I plead with the Minister to go back to the Foreign Office and say that it is about time we changed our attitude and recognised the Holodomor in Ukraine as a genocide.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Ukrainian Holodomor and the war in Ukraine.

5.27 pm

Sitting adjourned.